‘I’m fully booked, but can’t take on jobs’: a builder on life without EU workers

Sebastian Przetakowski came to the UK when he was 24. He wanted a holiday, and to make a bit of money to buy a car. His uncle was working in construction here and got Sebastian a job as a labourer. The plan was to spend two or three months working in the UK, then return to Poland. That was in 2004, and he’s still here – settled, a UK citizen, married, with two kids.

He gradually climbed the ladder, eventually starting his own construction business in London, doing loft conversions, extensions and garden offices. His daughters, six and four, are at school here; they supported England in the recent World Cup qualifier with Poland. “We had a small war at home,” he laughs.

The business grew, from 12 people to about 50. There were a few guys from the Czech Republic and Romania, but most came from Poland. It made communication easier but also, Sebastian says, Poles are good workers. “We have a very high work ethic and always try to work to the highest possible standards. Maybe because we have struggled. Poland has had difficulties since the war, people were always trying to do their best, I think that’s the reason.”

Around the time of the EU referendum, Przetakowski felt less at home in Britain. “You could feel the tension. There were places, some pubs, clubs, restaurants, where you could feel you were not welcome. And Nigel Farage on the TV.” His brother, the carpenter in the business, left. “He said he didn’t want to live here any more.” A few other friends and employees – plasterers, plumbers, decorators – went back. “The Polish economy at the time was doing quite well, there was a big demand for construction.”

Przetakowski was settled here, with his family and his business, so he stayed. But the exodus meant it was harder to find workers, both skilled and unskilled. And then Covid swung in like a big wrecking ball, sending more EU workers flying home. The most recent Federation of Master Builders State of Trade survey, published in August, found that 53% of builders are finding it hard to hire carpenters, while 47% are struggling to find bricklayers. Add to that material price rises (reported by 98% of respondents) and you’re looking at a sector under a lot of strain.

Przetakowski has had to reduce his own workforce. “And raise the wages of the people who stayed in order to reward them in some way and stop them from leaving.” There has been plenty of work coming in during the pandemic, “from people with money for projects like extensions and loft conversions. I’m fully booked up to next year, and can’t take on any jobs because I can’t get the people. Everyone is struggling to find workers.”

Before Brexit, Przetakowski could just call and get a cousin over for a few months. “Now it’s going to be difficult because of the new immigration system, it will require a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork. We’re going to need a solution from the government. The construction industry urgently needs temporary workers from the EU; this is a must.”

Young people are not getting into construction any more, it’s not fashionable
At the Tory party conference, Boris Johnson said Brexit would be good for British workers, as their wages would rise. Przetakowski has nothing against hiring Brits; he recently had some British bricklayers working for him. “They were reliable, worked on weekends and bank holidays.” But it’s not as if there’s a surplus of British workers at the moment either.

The problem is not just about the double hit of Brexit and Covid, says Przetakowski. “Young people are not getting into construction any more, it’s not fashionable. The decline needs to be reversed.” That means more apprenticeship schemes, for a start. “Also we have to get young people, including young women, to start thinking about working in construction and that it can help the environment as well. We can build flats with solar panels, with access to electric car charging – maybe this will make the industry more fashionable.”

He says that tension, the feeling of being unwelcome, has mostly gone. But so have so many much-needed workers, and they are still going. A Polish family at his children’s school is heading back to Poland next year. “It’s not like it’s behind us,” he says.

His carpenter brother, meanwhile, after initially returning to Poland, went to work in Germany. “It’s closer to Poland, he can drive there and back to see his family every two weeks. And it’s in the EU.” The money might be a bit less, but when you compare travel and living costs, he’s better off. “He’s much happier there than he was here.”